Size of ancient and modern bureaucracies

According to The History of Rome, episode 126, Diocletian increased the size of the Roman imperial bureaucracy from around 15,000 people to around 30,000.

I wanted to compare the size of the bureaucracy that ran the Roman Empire to the size of the bureaucracy that runs Houston, TX. This page suggests that the city of Houston has about 68,000 employees. But far more people work for government in other capacities than work for the city. According to Table 1 of this page, the latest estimate is that 361,800 in the Houston MSA work in the government sector. And about 22 million people work in the government sector nation wide.

Please don’t leave comments saying the Roman Empire and Houston are not directly comparable. Of course they’re not. But still, a very rough comparison is interesting.

Related post: Pax Romana

20 thoughts on “Size of ancient and modern bureaucracies

  1. Pretty amazing that Rome worked as well as it did with that. Assuming even that all those 15-30k people were administrators not ditch diggers (ditch diggers were free in Rome I think, “hey you did ditch or we crucify you, mmmmkay?”). Still even just keeping track of things say everyone had to go on a trip a couple times a year it would be weeks or months of travel when you really couldn’t do much and getting information back and forth would have huge latency.

  2. This is very interesting. A couple questions came to mind: (a) What was the slave population in the Roman Empire, and (b) What was the size of the Roman army? Both probably significantly increase the total number of people in the ‘government’ — or shall we say ’empire’ — sector. Also it would be interesting to look at the size of government relative to the total population. Alas, no time… :)

    Do those numbers include just the bureaucracy in Rome itself, or do they also include the bureaucracy in outlying areas?

    Interesting post.

  3. Kevin: The Roman army had about 300,000 soldiers.

    I don’t know about the size of the slave population, but since they were privately owned, I don’t think they could be considered indirect imperial employees.

  4. Given the modern improvements in productivity, US cities should be able to reduce their employee staffing by 90% if the benchmarks set by Rome — clearly, this is good news for America — I am excited to see the cuts in government employment implemented as quickly as possible…

  5. To paraphrase Joe Pesci in Goodfellas: “interesting how?” It’s true that Roman institutions and governance dwarfed those of its predecessors and formed the model for many modern nation-states; but economic activity, trades, transactions, in all of the Roman Empire were a tiny fraction of current Houston. The Empire had a scope only slightly larger than that of a minimal state (defense, property rights, taxes, coin minting, some infrastructure). It’s still very possible that Houston is overtaken by bureaucrats, but perhaps a crossectional comparison with other cities is more meaningful.

    And why stop at the Roman Empire? Just before the Neolithic Revolution 100% of the world population had no bureaucracy whatsoever. Of course they’re not directly comparable to us. But still, a very rough comparison is interesting.

  6. One question comes to mind: does the figure for the imperial bureaucracy include local magistrates? I’m not quite sure about the late empire but the republic and early empire were still a collection of largely self-governed municipalities that each had their own army of local bureaucrats, only with Roman supervision. If you include those I think it’s not unrealistic that the total number might rise above 100,000.

  7. One thing I find interesting is how proportions have changed. The US has about five times as many military personnel as Rome had. The US also has three to six times the population, so the proportion of citizens in the military is about the same. But the proportion of citizens working for the government is much larger.

    I find the comparison to Rome more interesting than the comparison to neolithic society because modern society has more in common with Rome.

  8. The idea that the size of a bureaucracy has anything to do with the work it needs to do was debunked some time ago.

    In any public administrative department not actually at war a staff increase may be expected to follow this formula … And this figure will invariably prove to be between 5.17 percent and 6.56 percent [annual increase], irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.

    C. Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) “Parkinson’s Law”, The Economist

    A good example is that Stanford University currently has many more administrators in its office of research than the British Empire had in India in the 1880s.

  9. Barak: The Stanford example is amazing, especially since university administrators don’t actually manage the content of research, only the associated paperwork: grant proposals and reports, ethics regulation compliance, etc.

    BTW, here’s a blog post I wrote about Parkinson’s law.

  10. But do those numbers for Houston include teachers, firefighters and cops (who are not exactly bureaucrates)?
    Also, does this comparison account to the fact that current Texas population density is almost twice higher than of Roman Empire of Diocletian times?

  11. That’s quite interesting, but did you do any comparison with relative populations? Maybe I’m a bit dense but that seems important here (along with the above mentioned classes of workers/people.)


  12. Catbert: I don’t know what is included in the 68,000 figure. I imagine teachers are not included since they are paid by HISD and not the City of Houston. The figure that is easiest to understand is the one that says 361,800 people in the Houston area work for government in some capacity.

    As for population density, the Houston MSA (which includes much more than just the city of Houston) has about 6 million people living in 26,000 square kilometers. The Roman Empire had 50 – 100 million people living in 6,500,000 square kilometers. So Rome had 250 times the area and 8 to 16 times the population.

  13. “Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don’t need to be done.” — Andy Rooney

  14. The bureaucracy under the Dominate was vastly larger than it was under the Principate. If I recall correctly, the central bureaucracy during the second century was only a few hundred people (although there would have been more on the staffs of governors, and cities would have looked after their own internal affairs to a much greater degree than they did later).

  15. This is definitely interesting to me.

    First and foremost, I would conjecture that government administrators are a luxury for a society, and thus it makes sense that the more affluent and efficient a society is, the more government administrators they can afford.

    Next, I would simply observe that a management scheme generally requires more than twice as many people to handle twice as many direct-contact positions. That is, once you get to a certain scale, there are no more economies in increasing your size (with regard to management), and when you double your managers, you then need managers to manage the managers. Put another way, managers create pyramids, and increasing the base of the pyramid while maintaining the same slope is a geometric increase in volume.

    While all well and good, that still doesn’t really explain why. If managing people, there’s a kind of natural scale for how many people one man manages well. My final point would thus be that government administrators are not managing people, but rather “things,” “activities,” or other nebulous affairs. As such, there is indefinite room for expansion.

    Now I’m depressed.

  16. please don’t post that Ancient Rome and Houston are not the same…
    I compared the strength of roman iron and modern Nickel/steel super alloys, and found a large difference…sure they are not the same, but it is interesting …

    I mean, John, what is your thinking here =how is a comparision between ancient rome and houston interesting unless we can talk about the differences ? I don’t get it.

    I mean, what would happen if you compared HOuston texas 1900 vs houston 2010 ?
    That would be intresting. Brad Delong, among others, has a graph of per capitia GDP that goes back to ancient times. and it is sort of, 1st order, flat to about 1600, grows gradually to about 1900, then takes off….
    so, comparisions about how many civil servants we need to anything before 1800 are sort of apples to stewed cranberries

  17. They did in fact have public slaves; I don’t know how many. Same for ancient Greece.

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